Iran responded to a resumption of Iraqi crude oil shipments throught the trans-Turkey pipeline by sending its warplanes on intense attacks today against the oil center of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
The apparent aim of the renewed air strikes in the northern Suleimaniya Province was to once again cut off the flow of Iraqi oil to the rest of the world and squeeze Iraq's economy as the war drags on into its third month.
The attacks also could be intended to prevent Turkey from returning to Iraq refined petroleum needed in the war effort, observers here said.
Iranian planes raided Kirkuk early in the war, knocking out pipeline switching stations, and Kurdish guerrillas blew up the pipeline, resulting in a shutdown of Iraq's oil shipping capability since its outlet to the Persian Gulf was caught up in the fighting.
Officially, the Iraqi government has not even acknowledged that it has resumed pumping crude oil through Turkey to Mediterranean coastal facilities, although the resumption was reported after Baghdad notified some of its European customers. Oil industry and Turkish government sources say the shipments have reached 500,000 barrels a day, a higher level than before the outbreak of the gulf war Sept. 22.
The official Iranian news agency, Pars, said Iranian fighter-bombers destroyed oil-storage tanks in Kirkuk, and and Iraqi communique tonight said that aeriel battles over Suleimaniya Province resulted in the downing of three Iranian jets and one Iraqi aircraft today.
The Iraqi military command said Iranian attacks had been intensified in Kirkuk during the past two days, with a loss of civilian lives. The renewed bombings, which followed a lull in the air war, coincided with the reported resumption of oil shipments throught Turkey on Thursday.
The pipeline's capacity since it was opened in 1977 has been about 750,000 barrels a day. Before the war, Iraq's oil exports were about 3.2 million barrels daily, the bulk of which was shipped out of the Persian Gulf.
Turkey has options to buy about 300,000 barrels daily from the pipeline for its own use, but because of a lack of foreign reserves, it has been taking only 100,000 barrels, according to industry sources. This means that if Turkey's consumption remains at the same level, at least 400,000 barrels daily would be available for export.
However, it is believed that much of the oil flowing through the pipeline since resumption of shipment is either being stored or refined for reshipment back to Iraq by way of road tankers to restock Iraqi reserves being strained by the war. Reports from Ankara said that tanker trucks have been pressed into service to transport gasoline, aviation fuel and kerosene to Iraq.
Moreover, Iraq is said to be receiving shipments of refined petroleum overland from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, thereby further reducing the strain on its oil stocks.
[The speaker of the Iranian parliament, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said in Beirut that Iranian jets that attacked targets inside Kuwait earlier this month were under orders to stop trucks carrying supplies overland into Iraq. Rafsanjani said, however, that the Iranian planes were supposed to attack only after the convoys entered Iraqi territory and that the rocketing inside Kuwait was an error, Washington Post special correspondent Nora Boustany reported from the Lebanese capital.]
According to a reliable trade newsletter, the Middle East Economic Survey, there are indicators that Iraq plans to deliver 65,000 barrels daily to France, Italy, Brazil, Yugoslavia, Greece and Cyprus. Official Iraqi sources here said today that France, Brazil and Yugoslavia are listed for preferential status.
Iraq was reported by another industry newsletter, Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, to have told long-term customers that tankers could start loading between 7.3 million and 11 million barrels that are ready to move from Turkish depots.
For its part, Iran is reported to be attempting to put some of its oil back on the world market by using its own tankers to load crude at Kharg Island and ship it to Lavan Island in the southern Persian Gulf for reloading by customers there. The sprawling Kharg Island loading facility has been periodically attacked by Iraqi aircraft.
[A United Nations spokesman in New York reported, meanwhile, that U.N. envoy Olof Palme won agreement between Iran and Iraq for safe passage of ships trapped in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway at the head of the gulf, scene of the war's heaviest fighting, United Press International said.]
The Iraqi military command in Baghdad claimed today that in the air war its planes have, in effect, knocked out Iran's entire Air Force and then some.
The claim, which was published in the official Baghdad weekly, Alif Baa, said that Iran has lost 462 warplanes -- more than the 447 combat aircraft Iran was reported to have at the outset of the conflict.